The Rev’d Roger Elks
CLick here for the text of the reflection
Hello. I wonder who said ‘rules were meant to be broken’? I used to find it really hard to break the rules. My dad and mum instilled in me that rules were there for my benefit. I had a little bit of fear of going in the wrong. As I’ve got older, breaking rules has become a bit easier, although I still am somebody who finds rules helpful. There was once somebody who had written on the bottom of the page that quoted the Ten Commandments in one of the prayer books in a church, “Do not attempt more than one at a time”. And we often think of Christianity as rules, don’t we? Rules to be obeyed. So let’s read our passage from Matthew Chapter five, which talks about rules, all the rules that the Pharisees and scribes had written down. Matthew 5v17 to 20.
17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Pharisees were obsessed with the Law and some of the extra laws that they had written, laws upon laws, upon laws, and so many of the details seem absolutely ridiculous to us as we look at them. Jesus quips about them. “You strain the gnat, but swallow the camel”. It is a joke. We’re meant to laugh at that. But Jesus says here in this passage that all those rules and regulations that are in the Law, none of it will be reduced. None of it will be put aside. And in fact, he says, ‘You see these Pharisees and teachers of the Law obeying all the laws. Well, you’re going to have to do even better than that if you’re going to enter the kingdom of heaven by obeying the Law.’
Martin Luther was a very devout Catholic monk before he kicked off the Reformation in the 16th century, and he was very keen on obeying the rules and joined one of the strictest Augustinian orders of monks. But after trying to obey all the rules and regulations that his religion told him, he just felt empty. ‘There must be a different way’, he said here. I quote from his writings,
“But this blameless monk that I was, felt that before God, I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no rather, I hated that just God who punishes sinners in silence. If I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and I got angry at God. I said, ‘Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow, through the Gospel, and through the Gospel, threaten us with his justice and his wrath.’ This is how I was raging wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant,
Luther was talking about Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he talks about God’s justice. So there is Martin Luther struggling with this whole idea that he’s a sinner. How can he obey all these commands? And then he realized that if he could not achieve this, then it is up to God to achieve this.
So what are these rules for if God is going to forgive us anyway? Well, the rules that God has shown to us, the Ten Commandments being good examples of those, are to show us what God intends. They’re there as an example, as a standard. Paul writes, to the Romans (Romans 3v20) “Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the Law. Rather, through the Law, we become conscious of our sin.”
So rules are what we are aiming for. Now they’re going to be fulfilled in the next world, Jesus words, in our passage “until everything is accomplished” verse 18.
So you and I, well, we are meant to obey the rules, but we know that we can’t. We have all fallen short. We’re in good company. Paul writes again, Romans 3v23 “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. So there are the rules. They’re there to show us what God intends. They are signs. Signs that there is a right and a wrong and this world needs to know that, and so do you and I. But signs also that there is hope; hope that one day we will be in a place where the rules will be obeyed by everyone and that you and I will have the power to do that as well. Until then, let’s struggle on doing our best, knowing that the rules are signs of what God intends, signs of a new life to come, knowing that we are forgiven, we are human and fall short, by God’s grace and through Christ on the cross. Amen.
The collect for this day, oh, god, the strength of all who put their trust in you, mercifully, except our prayers and because through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without you. Grant us the help of your grace that in the keeping of your commandments, we may please you both will and deed, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit. One God now and forever. Amen.